Hispaniola, an Island Divided

Study Visit

Dominican Republic, March 10 – March 17, 2018 (Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Germany, Bulgaria, Madrid, Kenya.)

In March of 2018, Act Global took part in a study visit to the Dominican Republic. The visit was part of a larger project looking at global migration patterns and the impacts they have upon the host countries. The Dominican Republic is located in the western Caribbean on the island of Hispaniola, which is divided between two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Overwhelmingly the migration is from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. To understand the context of this migration we met with various organisations, the ministry education and  the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA). As a result of our meetings and observations below is a reflection of our understanding on the situation.


A major writer in the area of prejudice was the American social psychologist Gordon Allport who in 1954 wrote a book called the nature of prejudice. In his book, Allport concluded that contact between groups was the best method for reducing prejudice. So on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola where only two countries exist, contact between both groups who share a colonial history should be simple. However, this is not the case, not only are they not united, the discrimination, mistrust and intolerance towards each other is deeply ingrained in both populations and the political tensions are high.

The Dominican Republic is the richer of the two nations with the average annual income being $8,200, compared to that of $1,300 in Haiti. This economical contrast is vast and the greatest in the Western hemisphere. As a result, many Haitians migrate to the Dominican side in search of work and a better quality of life.

Currently 800,000 (approximately 10% of the population) Haitians are thought to be living in the Dominican Republic, however this figure is hard to quantify as many migrants are undocumented and cross the boarder illegally. The migration trends are not a new phenomena as Haitians have been migrating over the border for hundreds of years with many generations of Haitians now having been born in the Dominican Republic. In spite of this, many Haitians do not have any legal status in the country. In 1929, Haiti and the Dominican Republic formalized the border. That same year, the Dominican Republic wrote their constitution stating that anyone born in the country was considered to be a citizen of the Dominican Republic irrespective to the legal status of his or her parents. However, in 2010 the Dominican Republic rewrote their constitutions amending this act, stating that in order for children born in the country to gain automatic Dominican citizenship status their parents must also be legal citizens in the country. Additionally, in 2013 a further act was implemented enforcing this act retrospectively all they way back to 1929, meaning that anyone who was given citizenship after 1929 to illegal or undocumented parents would now have their citizenship revoked. This act resulted in thousands of ethnic Haitians being deported to Haiti. Although despite this population being ethnic Haitians, Haiti does not recognise this population as citizens of Haiti, consequently leaving them as stateless. Currently, as a result of mass Haitian deportations, these stateless populations now live in makeshift refugee camps along the border.


Moreover, it appears that the divides have also been drawn across racial lines. In many countries in the world if you are mixed race, i.e. black with white, you are more likely to be labelled as someone who is considered black in the eyes of society oppose to white. However, in the Dominican Republic this is not the case. Almost all would not self identify as black but rather as mestizo or mulatto, meaning to be of mix heritage, and over 70% of the population would self identify as mestizo or mulatto. Those that are darker in complexion and not mixed are often labelled as Haitians. Whereas some of the black population may hold Haitian ancestry this is not the case for all. Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic brought black slaves to the island; the difference was that in the Dominican Republic more intermixing occurred than in Haiti. Being black in the Dominican Republic has a negative connotations and a number will self identify as indios meaning indigenous, but in fact this is a whole different group all together. Blacks who make up around 11% of the population whether they are from Haitian heritage or not, if they are unable to prove they are legal Dominican Citizens born to legal parents are more at risk of being deported. The situation is very complicated with both countries seeming reluctant to face the situation, and those individuals and organisations that are working to manage the situation are open to criticism and possible political isolation. Internationally, the Dominican Republic has been criticised for its changes to the constitution and policy updates and stands accused of abusing basic human rights in the process.

To gain a better understanding to how we arrived here, we first need to explore the historical backdrop and experiences of both peoples. Prior to European colonisation, Hispaniola (like other islands in the region) was inhabited by a native group known as the Taíno Amerindians. Christopher Columbus was the first European to arrive to the island and after his first voyage he returned to create the first European colony in the Americas. The Spanish first enslaved the native Taíno to work the agricultural plantations, but over time their numbers dropped due to very harsh slave conditions, a redirection of the food supply to benefit the European colonists and later diseases like small pox. However, as many of the first voyages only sent men to colonise the territory a significant mixed race population began to emerge and are still evident today. By the early 1500’s the colonists began to import African slaves believing them to be stronger and more capable of labour. In 1574 Hispaniola was reported to have 1,000 Spanish residence and 12,000 African slaves.

Agricultural exports such as sugar and coffee became very lucrative and conflicts broke out with other European powers looking to get in on the action. By the early 1600’s the Spanish were worried about the increase of pirates in the region so moved their inhabitance to settlements to the south of the island, this resulted in opening the north of the island for British, Dutch and French settlements. In 1665 King Louis XIV of France officially recognised the colony and named it Saint-Domingue, two years later the treaty of Ryswick parted the island, allocating two-thirds of the island to Spain and the rest to France. The Europeans were becoming rich off the trades of products from the colonies and as a result began to compete with each other. Sugarcane was one of the biggest cash crops and France maximised its profits but at their own demise. France imported and worked to death thousands of slaves to work the lands and reduce the labour costs. They over harvested sugarcane stripping the soil of its nutrients. Additionally they began to cut down the forests for the wood, all of which slowly but surely destroyed the land.



As the French worked the slave population so hard, killing thousands in the process, the result was the Haitian Revolution, a slave revolt which turned Haiti into the first independent free slave nation on earth. However, Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 was not without further consequence. France later billed the new independent Haiti 150 million Francs for loss of earnings, subsequently swapping them from a slave colony to being an independent nation in debt. In contrast, the Dominican Republic gained their independence from Spain in 1821 without charge. With the Dominican Republic being the more fertile of the two countries and Haiti’s high debt, Haiti later decided to invade and take over the Dominican Republic to improve their chances of growing cash crops for export, they also imposed French as the national language and associated Roman Catholicism with slave mastery, so tried to ban the religion too.

The rest of the trading world saw an independent free slave republic as a threat, as many nations under the European powers (and a recently independent United States) were still utilising slaves to boost their economies with free labour. So a free slave colony was a direct threat to their political system and they all feared slave revolts in their own territories. As a result the trading power nations isolated Haiti and refused to trade with them.

In 1930, the Dominican Republic was ruled by Rafael Trujillo, who held a great hatred for Haitians.  He is also held responsible for the Parsley massacre, which was known to have massacred thousands of Haitians. Trujillo was known for being very prejudice to those with black skin and wanting to distinguish Dominican as lighter and Haitian as darker. Today this is evident with those that identify as being black in the Dominican Republic at 11% compared to 95% in Haiti.

1838 Dominican Nationalists founded a resistance movement against Haitian rule called La Trinitaria, which led to the Dominican war of independence. The Dominican Republic was successful in fighting off the Haitians and gained a second independence in 1844.  Now when the Dominican Republic celebrates its independence it looks not to the three hundred plus years it was colonised by Spain, but to the twenty plus here it was colonised by Haiti.

All of these factors have lead to Haiti and the Dominican Republic having different experiences despite being on one island. Where as the Dominican Republic eventually saw more positive race relations due to working more equally together, interbreeding and cross marriages, Haiti’s reality was different. Black slaves in Haiti almost never held an equal status with white Europeans. As a result Haiti’s revolution was a race war redirecting power to a very discriminated black population. Today the Haitian revolution is an important event in Black history and can be seen as one of the first turning points in ending global slavery and civil rights for black people around the world.

It is said that the boarder region now operates as a de-facto third country between Haiti and the Dominican Republic with currencies being interchangeable, goods and services being exchanged and with a number of free trade market zones being established along the boarder. Additionally, Haitian’s are crossing the boarder on a daily bases to work, sell goods and even come to school. Despite all of the issues between the countries the border de-facto country is having some positive examples of cross cooperation. Moreover, another good example of cross country collaboration was when Haiti faced disastrous earthquake in 2010, the Dominican Republic was the first to come to their aid sending medical aid and much needed supplies.

Today the Dominican Republic is facing a new wave of migrants from Venezuela due to the hostility and instability of the Venezuelan regime, which will also cause them challenges. However, despite the Dominican Republic being a desired location for many of the poorest countries in the region to flock too, Dominicans themselves make up almost 1 million on total in the USA and also experience their own racial discrimination along with other Latino communities.

In conclusion, although Allport said contact reduces prejudice he stipulated four conditions, Equal status, Common goals, Intergroup cooperation and the Support of authorities, law or customs, all of which are not present between the two nations. Like many longstanding historical conflicts around the world, whatever solutions are proposed will be difficult and not accepted by all, but what all will agree is that a solution is needed and the current situation is not sustainable in the long-term.

Our experience of prejudice combined with negative media messages and a common mistrust in the society make it even more challenging for us to see the other in a positive light, but change starts within us and if we want to live in a kinder and fairer world we can start by seeing the individual for more than just their political, cultural and ethnic identity that is different to ours, but as individuals that share a common sense of humanity and have the same needs and wants as us all.

As the social psychologist Paulo Freire once said, the oppressed become the oppressor. Dominicans are treated as second class citizens in the USA and are often discriminated against. Back in the Dominican Republic Dominicans are very aware of the struggles their people face in the US. Instead of empathising with the plight of Haitians in a similar situation they manifest the very same discrimination they experience in the US and impose this on the Haitians. Of course the political situation and solutions are complex to resolve, but a place to start might be reflecting on our own situation, identity and sense of empathy to others that are not so different to us. (By Sebastian)


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